CA Assembly Transportation Committee Chair Laura Friedman on Climate Leadership in Transportation

Laura Friedman

Despite California's nation-leading investments in clean energy infrastructure and zero-emissions vehicle deployment, transportation remains a stubborn sector to decarbonize and the state's leading source of GHG emissions and air pollutants. Ahead of VX2021's January 26 Urban Mobility Webinar, VX News interviewed new California Assembly Transportation Committee Chair, Laura Friedman, who shares with VX News her policy priorities for reducing emissions, eliminating traffic fatalities, and improving the connectivity of urban regional light rail in Southern California.

Assemblymember, as the new chair of the California State Assembly Transportation Committee, do you bring to this new responsibility any particular priority for the agencies under your policy domain?

California leads the world in so many environmental priorities—in emissions reductions, clean energy, conservation of land, and open space—and there's a whole lot of places we can point to with pride in that regard, but right now, our transportation sector is not one of those. I felt this was going to be a huge challenge, but something that I'm really excited about trying to help push California transportation policy to match our other goals vis-a-vis the environment.

 It's a stubborn sector. It's difficult because there are all kinds of other issues intertwined with it, like how we use land, how we live, how we move goods, and just the size of the state and everything else that makes it a challenge.  But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be working every single day to lower our emissions, use land better, reduce congestion in our urban centers, and all the things that impact our health and quality of life, a lot of which stems from our transportation sector. So, my priorities are going to be around those issues, and it means changing directions with a lot of our agencies and a lot of our policies.

Assemblywoman, last September VX News interviewed Hilary Norton, chair of the California Transportation Commission, who elaborated on the nexus between climate change and transportation and the need for some policy changes at the state level.  You’re implicating that there's an old way of doing things that needs to change. Elaborate, having been in local government and now in the Assembly, on what needs to change and what policies we need to move away from.

Well, certainly, we have developed regionally here in Southern California very much around a car culture, which may have worked 20 to 30 years ago when we had a lot fewer people and a lot fewer places to go, but it works a lot less now that we have more people who live further away from where they work and have to travel far distances to get there when we don't have the kind of public transportation and transit infrastructure to make that easy, convenient, and affordable for people.

You used to be able to get anywhere in Los Angeles in 20 minutes. There was a joke in the movie Clueless, about getting from the Valley to Beverly Hills in 20 minutes. Now, you can hardly get five miles in 20 minutes, and certainly couldn’t before COVID.  Even outside of rush hour, you probably can't even get that far. So, if we're going to continue to grow as a community—and if we're going to give people a chance to live a life where they're not spending hours every day in their car commuting— we have to think differently about how we move people around.

Laura, could you touch on what's happened to public transportation in the last year and what you think might be the future, including rail and high-speed rail? Is there a new normal here for how public transportation is likely to be used, or are we just assuming it will be the same?

Public transportation was struggling before COVID in California, and it's certainly struggling much more now during COVID.  There are health reasons that, during the pandemic, make people not want to be on public transportation, and I can't blame them. I'm going to be on an airplane Monday morning and I'm nervous about it. So, that's something that I do think will change as we come out of the pandemic. There's a certain impact right now, that's not going to be eternal, my lips to God's ears, as we vaccinate people, and we get a handle on the pandemic.

There are other factors though that impact transit use in the region having to do with the convenience and availability of it, the affordability of automobiles, and of people having to commute from places where they don't have public transportation options that are pleasant. Anyone who's lived in a city that has a robust and good public transportation system knows—and I've lived in Boston and in New York City—that there are reasons why you want to take public transportation in most places, and we haven't created a system here where you would really want to because you're saving time, it's more convenient, or more pleasurable.

There are challenges that Los Angeles has to overcome to get people on transit. But when you look at lines like the Orange Line in the Valley or the Gold Line, those are very well used because they’re systems that work. But if you compare them to a bus, for instance, that's going to be just as stuck in traffic as any car and has to make a lot of extra stops, it ends up taking you twice what it would take you to drive yourself, of course people don't want to take that unless they absolutely have to.

I think you also have to compare apples to apples when it comes to deciding whether or not people really want to use public transportation. We just haven't provided a lot of public transit here that actually works for people's everyday use. Now, for high-speed rail, I've been pretty public about calling for changes in what we're doing with high-speed rail, changing those investments, and not continuing with the plan that high-speed rail has put forward. That's a whole other topic I'm happy to talk to you about, but that's a whole other thing. 

Should the state complete what we've contracted to do in terms of the Northern California routes?

Right now, it's an essential California route from Bakersfield to Merced, and my feeling is that we should not electrify that system. We have to finish building it, but the electrification part is an extra $2-3 billion. Money shifted into shovel-ready projects in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles would prepare those areas for eventual high-speed rail, but have the co-benefits of making the existing rail systems in those areas work a lot better, and I believe it's money better spent.

The electrification portion has the benefit of speeding the trains up somewhat from the third generation diesel trains that go awfully fast. The problem is that the electrification of that system means that if you're going into the Bay Area, you have to change trains, which will add time—maybe enough time to where you lose any of that time savings—unless you're just going to Merced. But most people are probably going a little further, and that means getting off a train in any kind of weather, getting all your luggage, strollers, and toddlers off, then hopefully the train is waiting for you, but you may have to wait.

The studies show that just the uncertainty about what's going to happen pushes a lot of people to not want to ride the train at all. Now, compare that to the Amtrak that right now is slower, but costs may be half, and you may lose the time savings. That money shifted into getting Metrolink dual tracked, being more reliable and consistent, and running a lot faster and more regularly in Los Angeles so that you build ridership here. When you build the ridership in your urban areas, you can then justify finishing the system. If I'm already now a dedicated Metrolink user because it's convenient, it's fast, and I know it's always going to be there. Maybe then you have the political will and the public desire to complete the whole system so that you can have high-speed rail going up to San Francisco.

My fear is you put a tremendous amount of money into this short section of high-speed rail, the ridership doesn't justify continuing the whole line and you end up with basically a stranded asset without the money to finish. To me, that would be the worst result of any possible result. 

Places that have invested in high-speed rail around the world— in Europe and Japan—have an entirely different model than what California and the US has.  They really gave the system to the transportation companies and let them make the money off the joint use and commercial opportunities that derive from high utilization of their facilities, and it cost their governments almost nothing. Why has California not followed in that way, given how expensive these systems have proved to build?

I couldn't tell you why. I certainly wasn't in the legislature when those kinds of decisions were made initially. I went to Spain with the Transportation Committee a couple of years ago to talk to the Spanish government, and I saw those train stations filled with private uses that helped to pay for a lot of the infrastructure. By the way, part of making that work was by bringing those train systems into their urban cores, so you have a center around your transit hub. You don't start out in the middle of nowhere and expect people to go there. Even if you're going slowly through the community, you have a central system that becomes one of the focal points of your city.

I did get to talk to them about how they completed this system. What was interesting was hearing that in Spain, they had all the same arguments. They had a lot of people who didn't want to do this system, they had a lot of people said it was stupid, it couldn't be done, it was too expensive, and that no one would ride it. Now, what they're finding is that every single city wants high-speed rail.

I'm perfectly willing to explore those kinds of alternatives that you're talking about: those public-private partnerships with transportation companies—Lord knows they're out there banging on California's door. Certainly, I’ve heard enough from the foreign companies who are willing to invest in California to know that there's a tremendous amount of interest here, not just within California, but going to Las Vegas.  We should be exploring all of that. 

For the last couple of months, Phil Washington has been point for the Biden transition team on transportation. Have you been in conversation about what Metro's priorities should be and what the federal priorities should be in concert with your work as chair of the transportation committee?

First of all, I haven't had any conversations yet with Metro since becoming chair. I've only been chair for two weeks, and we haven't been back in session. Phil has just moved over, and there's a lot of transition, but I look forward to having that conversation. Over the last couple of years, I've had numerous conversations with Metro, and I think it's very exciting to have, not just a Southern California Metro person going to the Biden administration, but now to have two Southern California female representatives, myself and Lena Gonzalez, heading the two transportation committees.

Metro has done a great job with Metrolink. They have a lot of really impressive plans for making that system run better, and my job is to try to get them as much of it funded as I can, quite honestly. When I talk to constituents, which I do every single day, people have mixed feelings about buses, but I've never been anybody who didn't like some sort of rail.

I have people in Glendale now asking if they can get light rail going into Silver Lake, or the connector between the Red Line and the Gold Line becoming light rail eventually. Certainly, everybody wants to go to LAX by rail— the one rail system that would have made the most sense in Los Angeles going back 50 years that was never built. There's a lot of interest in rail in the area, and certainly, the younger generation is very interested in finding alternatives to driving in cars. 

Let me close this conversation, Laura, with your take on the Assembly for 2021. What should our readers know about its priorities and its agenda that you're a part of?

We're going to have some of the same limitations that we had last year in terms of the amount of legislation we're going to be able to do because of COVID. It just puts real restrictions on the number of bills that we can do, the number of hearings that we can have, and it overshadows our legislative work and our priorities. There's going to be a lot less money to throw around than we would have thought a couple of years ago. A lot of the money is now going into various COVID relief and the COVID response.

We have small landlords who are at risk of defaulting on their mortgages at the same time. Everybody is heartbroken watching restaurants and other impacted businesses close. I could spend months and months just trying to work on those issues, but at the same time, we have all of these other issues that we are tasked with dealing with, like transportation. So it's a challenge to do that kind of multitasking. It is, I will say personally, a very frustrating time. I sometimes feel helpless about some of these issues. I spend a lot of time on Zooms with my colleagues and at the governor's office, and everybody is trying to do their best, but it's really hard to get a handle on things like the vaccine rollout or what kind of public health guidance to give people.

“[Transportation] is a stubborn sector...But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be working every single day to lower our emissions, use land better, reduce congestion in our urban centers, and all the things that impact our health and quality of life.”

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